Are the Cubs in the Pirates' heads?
It's a question that has been posed by reporters the last two weeks and every time, Joe Maddon and Cubs players have brushed it aside.
Whether the Cubs have a psychological advantage over the Pirates or not, the simple fact of the matter is the head-to-head series has been completely one-sided after the Cubs picked up a 8-2 victory in front of 40,953 fans at Wrigley Field Saturday.
That's now five straight wins over the second-place Pirates to open the 2016 season, as the Cubs have built a sizable lead in the National League Central (nine games over the Pirates, eight over the St. Louis Cardinals, who play the Dodgers Saturday night in Los Angeles).
In those five wins, the Cubs have outscored the Pirates 37-11.
"That's surprising," Jake Arrieta said. "But every game's a different story, really. We've fared well against them thus far, but we know the quality they have over there and that hasn't changed.
"We've just been playing some good baseball. We've been throwing well. Bullpen's been great and obviously our offense has been doing their thing. You just want to see your guys stay as hot as they can for as long as possible."
Arrieta actually permitted the Pirates to score a couple runs, but still wound up with a mostly-dominant start, going eight innings and striking out 11 (six of the looking variety).
He seemed to lose things a bit in the fourth inning when he gave up three hits and hit a batter, leading to two runs. That ended Arrieta's streak of 26 straight shutout innings against the Pirates dating back to last September (and including that complete-game shutout in the one-game playoff).
After Arrieta walked Pirates pitcher Jeff Locke on four pitches in the fifth inning, Cubs catcher Miguel Montero went out to have a chat with the reigning NL Cy Young winner.
Montero thought Arrieta was getting too fine with his pitches.
"We had a little talk and I said, 'You know, just throw the ball, man. Just let it go. Let it eat. That's when you're the best,'" Montero said.
Montero called some of those called strike-three pitches "Hall of Fame" caliber.
"When you catch Jake, you don't need to even be on the same page," Montero said. "Any pitch he wants to throw is gonna be a really good pitch because he's got plus pitches.
"As a catcher, you don't worry about him shaking you off or not because it's gonna be a good one."
The Cubs immediately bailed Arrieta out on Anthony Rizzo's three-run homer in the bottom of the fourth inning.
Addison Russell stayed hot, chipping in a two-run shot of his own in the sixth inning. He now has nine RBI in his last four games and 13 RBI in his last seven contests.
Dexter Fowler delivered a bloop single to score Miguel Montero later in the sixth and the Cubs rallied for two more runs in the eighth on four straight hits to close out the scoring on the afternoon.
Arrieta is now 7-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 0.84 WHIP on the season.
Since the start of 2015, Arrieta has a ridiculous 0.75 ERA and 0.617 WHIP against the Pirates, striking out 60 and allowing just 28 hits in 60 innings.
Arrieta also became the first pitcher since 1893 to allow three or fewer runs in 28 straight starts. He has won his last 18 decisions and the Cubs have won his last 21 starts, which is a franchise record.
Despite Arrieta's ridiculous run, the Cubs actually see room for their ace to grow and improve.
"He's not been as sharp as he can be yet this year," Joe Maddon said. "I mean that. I'm not trying to be casual about it. He just hasn't been as sharp as he can be. There's another level of sharpness for him."
Montero agreed, though he also offered that Arrieta hasn't lived up to the absurd expectations that have been placed on him after last year's second half.
"He hasn't been as sharp as everybody wants him to be," Montero said. "Maybe he's thinking a little bit too much. He's trying to actually find his arm slot or make every pitch a perfect pitch, and that's pretty much impossible to do.
"... Don't worry about pitching. Just worry about throwing the ball. Because that's when he's actually getting in trouble - when he's nibbling and trying to be too fine with pitches. He doesn't need that. He can throw it down the middle and it's gonna be hard to hit it."